Paid queer diversity work. Do you need to be queer to do it?
‘Female, white, able-bodied, straight and binary. It is not a dating profile for Tinder but a description of the predominant profile of Australia’s workplace diversity and inclusion (D&I) practitioner’ (Annese 2018). This is how Lisa Annese, the head of the Diversity Council of Australia (DCA), began a 2018 article in the Sydney Morning Herald about a lack of diversity amongst paid diversity workers in Australia. The statement was based on a study undertaken by The University of Sydney Business School, DCA and the Australian HR Institute (2018, p.1) of the last two body’s members, and included 279 respondents. The point of Annese’s article is clear: when it comes to paid diversity work, minority groups are underrepresented, and identity matters.
What Annese’s piece does not focus on, but which I turned my mind to during my doctoral research on queer workplace diversity, are the affordances and the limitations of people outside a particular community doing paid diversity work on their behalf. I contemplated this specifically in relation to paid queer diversity work. These reflections started as a result of a situation I encountered during my interviewing and observational research with workplaces in NSW. At one organisation, the sole queer diversity practitioner role was held by someone, Alex, who was not queer herself.
In this essay, I argue neither that one needs to be queer to do paid queer diversity work, or the reverse. Instead, I argue that both sides of the conversation need to be considered, to enable a nuanced consideration on what is politically gained and lost by specifying that queer diversity workers must be queer themselves.
My ability to write this piece is indebted to the friendship and genuine passion for queer diversity work that ‘Alex’ showed me whilst doing research with her organisation. If she was not genuinely committed to constructing more queer friendly workplaces, she would not have spent months of her already busy full time schedule, introducing me to workers to interview, enabling my access to meetings, and assisting my research project wherever possible. The queer diversity work I am performing through writing this piece, does not sit in opposition to Alex’s work, but is in line with the self-reflexive spirit and constant interest in improving queer workplace diversity efforts that Alex demonstrated with a passion.
I further preface my conversation by recognising this discussion is a luxurious hypothetical for some workers. Through speaking with employees who do queer advocacy labour in workplaces, I know that many organisations do not have paid queer diversity roles, and many workplaces expect this labour to be performed uncompensated. For instance, one worker at an organisation I did research with indicated that whilst diversity work for women was compensated on a board he was on, queer diversity work was not.
What does a queer diversity worker do?
Through my observational doctoral research within workplaces, some of the common tasks of queer diversity workers are:
- giving advice to workers about how to best support their queer clients, and interact with other queer workers
- liaising with queer community groups and organisations
- organising events for queer awareness days
- operating across diversity portfolios to work on intersecting diversity projects (for instance, one queer diversity worker I spoke to was attempting to get queer feedback on a disability strategy for the organisation)
- creating queer diversity promotional materials
- attending educational seminars about how to improve queer diversity efforts, and;
- if that workplace is a member of Pride in Diversity, creating submissions for the Australian Workplace Equality Index- an accreditation system that ranks workplaces according to their level of queer friendliness, based on things like the organisation’s policies, and queer diversity events they hold during the year.
Given these tasks and objectives, should a paid queer diversity worker be queer or not?
Perspective A: Paid queer diversity roles should be filled by queer people
Firstly, I do not think that identity is irrelevant to the performance of queer diversity work. Given my own experience, and findings from the PhD project of Jan Filmer (2020), some queer people do tend to alter their behaviour and what they feel comfortable discussing with people outside queer communities. I know from personal experience that the way I interact with people within and outside queer communities generally differs. The language I use, my defensiveness, my sense of comfort and the topics I talk about often change depending on whether the person is part of queer communities or not. A similar phenomenon was expressed in Filmer’s PhD project. Filmer (2020) interviewed queer people to learn about the construction of queer spaces in and around Sydney, Australia. One interview participant in his project, Jeff, said that the things he talked about with straight friends differed from what he felt at ease talking about with queer people. Filmer states, ‘when I asked him why that might be the case, he related this to the kinds of things he feels comfortable sharing with other queers, such as matters of sexual health, people’s views on family and children, or issues to do with ‘boys’. Further, Jeff gave the example of a straight female friend of his, who he did not really feel comfortable talking about gay matters with. Thus, it can be seen both Jeff and I changed the way we moved through the world when encountering people outside queer communities. To me, this emphasises that the identities of diversity practitioners working with and for queer communities has significance. It made me think about whether there are limits to how effective people outside queer communities could be in these roles, given their lack of lived experience with queer marginalisation, and the fact that queer people might not be as comfortable being open with them about their experiences.
Secondly, arguing you do not need to be queer to do paid queer diversity work creates a slippery slope for the idea that other types of diversity advocacy—for instance, women’s and disability advocacy—do not need to be filled by people in these groups. On the contrary, there is a large amount of commentary from people in these groups about why it is important for folks in these communities to be put in prominent diversity and advocacy roles representing them (Price 2013; Waters 2014; Innis 2014). One reason for this is that people from these groups have a history of being spoken on behalf of by people outside their own communities. An example of this would be when former Prime Minister Tony Abbott occupied the role of Minister for Women, something many feminist writers critiqued, and claimed it was more appropriate for a woman to occupy this role (Price 2013 and Waters 2014). Indeed, these commentators recognised the significance of lived experience for advocacy work. So too did former Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innis, on the grounds of how invaluable lived experience of a disability was for disability advocacy work (Innis 2014). While there is a heterogeneity of views and experiences within groups like women and those with disabilities, there are strong views that it is preferable for marginalised groups to be represented by their own. By saying it’s fine for non-queer people to do paid queer diversity work, I worry this can be used as ammunition by conservatives to justify the irrelevance of identity for advocacy roles.
Thirdly, as Annese notes, there is already an issue with diversity positions in Australia being dominated by straight, cisgender people. Marking out particular roles as only being for queer people can work to address this issue. A straight, cisgender person occupying a paid queer diversity role sits awkwardly alongside the high rate of unemployment for trans workers. For instance, a 2018 study found trans unemployment was 21%—quadruple the general unemployment rate in Australia (Cheung et al. 2018, p.232). In a later study, Equality Australia listed the trans and gender diverse unemployment rate at 20%, following the rise of COVID-19 in Australia (Equality Australia 2020, p.18). Marking out paid queer diversity roles as specifically for queer people, and applying positive discrimination in hiring practices for marginalised groups within this community—for instance, for trans people (Olsen 2019)—could help address the dominance of people with straight and cisgender identities in diversity practitioner roles.
Perspective B: People outside the queer community should be able to be paid queer diversity practitioners too
Though there are compelling reasons why only queer people should be able to do paid queer diversity work, persuasive arguments exist for why this does not necessarily have to be the case. I address three of these arguments below.
Firstly, not having to deal with queer oppression personally can free up the energy of allies to perform queer diversity work, where queer workers sometimes cannot.
I found this in an interview with a queer worker (Charlie) in Alex’s organisation. While Charlie acknowledged there could be benefits to queer people occupying these roles, they also said the expectation that only queer people could do paid queer diversity work could be hugely, ‘taxing on that person. Because you’re doing that [being queer] 24/7. So already outside of work life, you’ve got to be an educator, you know—to your family, to your friends, to your health professional—to everyone. Then at work, you’re also being that educator’ (italics added). Charlie stated they were glad they did not work in a paid queer diversity role full time, as the labour of educating people about queerness at work, in addition to already doing it outside of it, would be too much. Indeed, they said, ‘it’s tricky to be flying the flag all the time. Because you’ve got to be flying the flag everywhere … and I think people who aren’t from a minority group don’t really get that’. Thus, their point was that sometimes it could be appropriate for non-queer people to do paid queer diversity work, given it may not be as exhausting or all-encompassing as it could be for some queer workers.
Following Charlie’s perspective, my second point about why there should not be a rule about non-queer people doing paid queer diversity work relates to the way it perpetuates a binary between those who are queer and not queer. This inhibits understandings of the ways heteronormativity oppresses people on both sides of the fence (Cohen 2005, p.22). Heteronormativity does not simply refer to the way in which heterosexuality becomes normalised, but the means through which heterosexuality intersects with vectors like race, class, disability and age to marginalise those within and outside queer communities. Scholar Cathy Cohen argues that queer politics needs to challenge heteronormativity, not simply heterosexuality. Informed by the late 1990’s US context, she argues this needs to happen to appreciate how heteronormativity oppresses not just queer people, but also Black single mothers on welfare, for instance, who experience the brunt of classism, racism and sexism—all components of heteronormativity (Cohen 2005, p.26). Cohen’s piece makes me reflect on the ways that, while an organisation may appoint a queer person to a paid queer diversity role, if they are a white, gay, middle-class cisgender man (as has occurred at one of my workplaces), it is evident that their positionality does not just challenge heteronormativity, but also perpetuates it. Cohen’s chapter can be used to argue that one does not necessarily need to be queer to do paid diversity work, and that constant reflection needs to occur in relation to the ways queer people are simultaneously both oppressors and oppressed.
My third argument regarding why one should not have to identify as queer to engage in paid queer diversity efforts is that it makes outing oneself mandatory. This can demand adherence to a white, Western coming out narrative that is not comfortable or applicable to all. Writers Nonno and Aroosa (2018) explore this phenomenon in their essay ‘A QPoC Manifesto: fighting for invisibility in a world that loves to talk’. In this chapter, they discuss their own experiences of not disclosing their queerness publicly based on their interest in being, ‘respectful members of … [their] … communities’ (Nonno and Aroosa 2018, p.185), whilst noting this does not mean they cannot experience their queerness in a fulfilling way. Being out for them would involve a trade-off in some respects between their communities and identities they say they are not willing to make. For instance, Nonno and Aroosa state, ‘no matter how awesome the queer community is, it can’t replace your family of origin and the culture you grew up in’ (Nonno and Aroosa 2018, p.191). Their piece raises serious ethical concerns about requiring one to be out to do paid queer diversity work, given the way that this requirement can perpetuate a hegemonic coming out narrative that dismisses the heterogenous ways in which people express their queerness culturally.
Beyond perspectives A and B
Beyond debates about who should do paid queer diversity work, it is also important to reflect on how people come to identify as queer, and the barriers to this identification. In a night-time Skype session, my queer friend from Norway, Jenny Duggan, mused about the articulatory possibilities open to straight, cisgender women (one of the most popular demographics of paid diversity workers in Annese’s article). Jenny argued for a nuanced conversation about the structural barriers to people learning about queerness growing up, or even envisioning it as a possibility for them. Her point resonated with my own experience. It was not until I was privileged enough to attend university, and do a queer studies unit there, that I thought being queer might be a positive prospect for me. Queer sex was never spoken about in my high school sex ed or at home, and queer identities were rarely talked about positively, if they were spoken about at all, while I was at school. Thus, I’d never seriously entertained being queer as an option.
Since coming out as queer, I’ve learned more about the myriad of political forces in Australia that can operate to inhibit queer identification. The abolition of Safe Schools—a program that aimed to create more inclusive spaces for students who were intersex, sexuality and gender diverse—in NSW in 2017 was one such structural barrier. Another has been Mark
Latham’s legislative attempts in NSW this year to make learning about, and identifying as, queer more difficult within the education system—evidenced through the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020. Notably too, the heteronormativity underlying these political forces isn’t ahistorical. Numerous queer and Indigenous writers have talked about heteronormativity as a colonial construct (Farrell 2020; Henningham 2019; Moon 2020), and of the gender and sexual diversity existing in Australia since before colonisation (Henningham 2019, p.103; Moon 2020). For instance, in an article in bent street 3, Mandy Henningham discusses how, ‘sistergirls in particular have long been part of communities since before colonisation’ (Riggs and Toone, 2017 cited in Henningham 2019, p.103). Drawing on the work of Anthony Baylis (2015, cited in Henningham 2019, p.103) she notes this is barely documented in dominant Australian histories. By highlighting some of the structural reasons for the dominance of heteronormativity in Australia, I aim to draw attention to the need for conversations around the articulatory possibilities for queerness. Beyond simply grappling with whether someone is queer or not to assess their suitability for a job, I argue that people’s journeys to or away from queerness are significant, as they provide a complex account of the ways colonialism and heteronormativity shape peoples’ identities.
Conclusion and recommendations
While I do have a personal preference for queer people occupying paid queer diversity roles, given the way lived experience can be enormously beneficial to this work, an important ethical case can be made for non-queer people doing this labour. For instance, as Charlie stated, sometimes it can be appropriate for straight, cisgender people to do this work when queer employees are exhausted by the effort of queer education. Beyond discussing the significance of positionality for this work, it is important to reflect on the accessibility of queer identification, and the structural barriers that work to reinforce heteronormative lifeworlds. What I hope to stimulate in this essay is a deeper reflection on the implications of hard and fast rules about the expected identity of paid queer diversity workers, and to bring to light a conversation about the role of allies in this work that I have not seen substantively explored in writing in the Australian context.
While I have scrutinised the role of identity in paid queer diversity work in this piece, I turn back to Annese’s article, which highlights the need for ongoing work to improve the representation of difference in paid diversity roles (Annese 2018). Ways in which this work could be progressed include greater institutional reflection on who occupies paid queer diversity positions. For instance, this could occur through examining the role requirements or hiring practices to see if people with tertiary qualifications are preferred for diversity roles, as this can favour subjects with middle and high socio-economic backgrounds. Such a bias could subsequently prevent some people with lower socio-economic backgrounds from being hired. This possibility is problematic, due to the financial struggles faced by many marginalised members of the queer community, and given that skills or lived experience may make someone perfectly qualified for the job. Secondly, enabling researchers from within or outside organisations (such as myself) to speak with workers can enable invaluable feedback on the effectiveness of queer diversity efforts, and the appropriateness of allies doing paid queer diversity work. Indeed, perspectives like Charlie’s are incredibly insightful about the boundaries of allyship. Thirdly, positive discrimination in hiring practices for paid diversity workers could be helpful. My experience looking for work is that generally people who have past experience with a role are looked on more favourably in the hiring process for the same type of position. This means the characteristics that Annese highlighted—being binary, white and able-bodied—get recycled, and there is no opportunity for a break in the pattern. Positive discrimination in hiring for roles—for people with specific marginalised identities who also have the required skills and experience—is one method for disrupting the status quo. Through these recommendations, and outlining what is politically lost and gained by allies doing paid queer diversity work, I have facilitated nuanced and complex conversation on the significance of identity for paid queer diversity efforts.
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Hannah Gillard is a non-binary writer in their final year of PhD study. They have blogged for a community legal centre and written for Archer Magazine. Hannah performs doctoral research on LGBTQI+ workplace diversity and lives on Wallumedegal land.
 I use ‘queer’ throughout this essay as an imperfect shorthand for those who are LGBTQI+, or, put another way- those who are not straight or cisgender.
 This is a pseudonym – I have anonymised participants in my research with their consent.
 I acknowledge the important critiques that writers like Business Queer (2019;2020) have performed of the Australian Workplace Equality Index in Archer Magazine.
 The names were changed by Filmer in his project to protect the identities of interview participants.
 My view is that Jeff probably also meant to specify ‘cisgender’ here, given the way straight people form part of queer communities too— for example, being straight and trans, or straight and intersex. However, I cannot confirm this.
 Cohen (2005, p.44) does not argue for the abolition of identity categories like queer, but rather contends that constantly querying them is an important ethical project for queer politics.
 My reflection on this point was not just stimulated by Cohen’s piece, but also through a late night party conversation with my friend Tanja Dittfeld, who encouraged me to consider the way intersecting oppressions impact, and are perpetuated by, queer people.